Shelf harm (2 of 2)

August 23, 2012

I am concerned about the plan to relocate the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University to the London School of Economics ("Imperilled archive seeks new fearless champion", News, 2 August).

The LSE boasts that this "transfer" would, in a spirit of serendipity, return the library to the second site of the Women's Social and Political Union (from 1912, Lincoln's Inn, Kingsway). However, a historical gloss (not to mention sleight of hand) is used to justify this, given that by that date the WSPU was divided, both tactically and in class terms. The Pethick Lawrences, who had financed the paper Votes for Women, had been expelled; and Sylvia Pankhurst, increasingly exasperated with the autocratic nature of the union's leadership (mainly her mother and sister), split and established the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). Its headquarters were on the Roman Road in the East End. She wanted to establish the movement there because: "It was the greatest homogenous [sic] working class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations. The creation of a woman's movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country."

Wash houses were established in Old Castle Street in the middle of the 19th century. The street was a gathering point for working-class women who had minimal provision to clean their clothes or themselves in their own very poor homes (many without running water). The ELFS would have been aware of this: indeed, many members used the wash houses themselves. It was thus highly appropriate to establish the Women's Library there.

I am utterly amazed that London Met sees fit to squander such a rich resource - a national collection - and to place it in such an inappropriate place. I appeal to those who made this decision to think again.

Mary Davis, Author of Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics

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